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Jaspreet Singh’s Helium is a tour de force

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 04:00PM EDT

New Yorker critic James Wood once said of the writer Geoff Dyer: “He combines fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining.” Take away the comic English whining and add a touch of genocide circa India 1984 and you have an idea of the tour de force that is 
Helium. It’s not an easy book to classify, and that’s a good thing.

Some books are a roller-coaster ride; the novel Helium is more a flickering hall of mirrors. After decades away, the novel’s narrator makes an exile’s trip back to a shining new India to see his ailing father (who may be faking) and to revisit his much altered homeland. In the years abroad, he has travelled the globe, to Mexico, Montreal, the United States, and Iceland, but his troubled heart is fixed on India circa 1984. That year, during a pogrom against Sikhs, the narrator’s beloved engineering professor was killed at the New Delhi train station; a mob doused him with gasoline and set him alight in front of his horrified students.

The novel argues that such acts of violence were not spontaneous, not simply bloody revenge for the killing of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; the novel states that the killers were actively encouraged and orchestrated by well-known government officials and condoned by the police and authorities who, over a course of days, allowed mobs to maim and kill (blood for blood, the murderers cried).

The narrator, now a professor himself, is critical of the old British colonial regime in India and its crumbling remnants (“architecture as crime”), but he is even more vitriolic toward the new booming India and its post-colonial denial of old sins while new money flows to a lucky few.

“Our national genius, to make the poor defecate on the roadside,” a character complains over drinks. “Six hundred million don’t have proper toilets.” The same character complains that Mahatma Gandhi is held up as a loin-clothed poster boy for India’s image of peace and spirituality, nicely masking the massive violence and class conflict in India’s past and present.

“How ugly the collective consciousness of a nation can be,” the narrator thinks to himself, but does not say to his ex-wife, a translator who finds India “romantic.”

The narrator deems Indira Gandhi a hideous monster (the plane lands at the airport named after her) and Delhi is described as a wounded city, guilty of collective amnesia. Modern university buildings themselves are complicit, designed by “an architect who had erased the past” echoing the narrator’s disconnection from family and loved ones. The city is wounded and he has been wounded; psychological and historical are tied up, parents and leaders and family and nation are all connected.

Our narrator, retracing a path home, is also on another quest, to the mountains of Shimla, in search of Nelly, his mentor’s wife who, vanished after his brutal death (the narrator was infatuated with her decades before). Yet another search hangs on whether his father, a high-profile police officer, was involved in the murderous pogroms that have so affected the son and Nelly. There is no easy ending; it is doubtful that father and son can be truly reconciled, but as the narrator says of the tectonics and geology of the Himalayas, “What holds things together is more important than what separates them.”

Jaspreet Singh’s writing always has an astute scientific side: Our narrator’s area of study is rheology, the study of flow, whether volcanic lava or money or memory or blood. In the years after the killing of his professor, the student attempts to estimate the speed with which fire engulfs the average human body, but cannot finish the calculations.

Helium is loaded with science, but it is also a very literary book. Primo Levi’s work on the death camps haunts these pages and small black-and-white photos are interspersed à la W.G. Sebald; there are mentions of Roberto Bolano, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell and the strange Russian film Stalker. The blur of genres reminds me of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard seems a melancholy influence on the compelling voice.

Helium is not a laugh riot, it’s an angry accomplished work, and will be a controversial book in India, which should give it legs (I believe India has slightly more readers than Canada).

Decades after the pogroms, there are no memorials and no one has been punished; indeed, as on Wall Street, the guilty seem to be rewarded. Many want to move on and forget, but for the troubled narrator, the trauma and memory won’t go away. “The past had come like bitter drops of helium, but he didn’t know how to handle it; this helium was neither inert, nor invisible, nor light, and refused to disappear.”

Silence around killings can be complicity. This is a noisy novel about silence.


Novel revisits one of the darkest times in India's post-independence history, writes Bron Sibree

Sunday, 09 June, 2013

Jaspreet Singh's eagerly awaited second novel, Helium, is rather unusual, disturbingly beautiful and somewhat angry.

In some senses, it bears many of the hallmarks of Singh's lauded 2009 debut novel, Chef, which used a dying cook and the icy terrain of the Siachen glacier to examine the bloody India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. An emotionally distant narrator, haunting memories and a contested history - as well as an acknowledged debt to W.G Sebald - are all packaged inside a profoundly poetic novel that unfolds with the leisurely, meditative pace of a travelogue and the suggestive thrust of a thriller.

Like his debut novel, Helium is a relatively short 284 pages. But unlike the debut, Helium is so pointedly peppered with archival photographs and real-life names and utterances, along with the odd scientific image and artist's sketch, that it is palpably suggestive of a documentary, a non-fiction exposé.

It opens with its narrator, a professor of rheology (the study of the flow of matter) and a father of two who lives in Ithaca, New York, recalling his last sabbatical visit home to New Delhi to visit his father, who is recovering from serious surgery. He stopped over in Brussels on the way, to attend a rheology conference, and was stranded by the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption. The eeriness of the situation, coming after a rheology student presented a paper on the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, sent him unwillingly into a mood of deep reflection on his life and his chosen field. "Everything in this world of ours flows. Even so-called solids flow. My own work focuses on the flow of 'complex materials', the ones with 'memory'."

Memory continues to drive the narrator when he lands in Delhi, just as it shapes and drives the novel, which is anchored both in the events of 2010 and in the more distant events of 1984. For what is tugging at our rheologist's consciousness, jostling for his attention among other memories from his life in Delhi and the very real happenings of 2010, is his memory of the time he witnessed the brutal murder of his former university professor.

The killing happened during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination, an event the author calls a government-sponsored "pogrom" in which up to 7,000 Sikhs were killed. The narrator, whom we eventually learn is called Raj, was a 19-year-old Indian Institute of Technology student returning from a class trip, when he watched, paralysed, as a mob singled out his professor at a Delhi train station, threw a tyre over him, doused him in petrol and set him on fire.

Raj has a vivid recollection too, of witnessing a senior Congress party politician inciting the angry mob, urging them to kill every Sikh, in this bloody event. Often called India's holocaust, it remains a sore point in India today - several senior members of Gandhi's Congress Party were accused of inciting the violence, but were never convicted. The government launched the Nanavati inquiry into the riots in 2000, and it found one prominent senior Congress MP was "very probably" involved in organising the attacks. After the report was tabled in parliament in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also apologised to the Sikh community, describing the 1984 riots as "one of the saddest, darkest moments in recent Indian history", but as recently as this year, individuals, still seeking justice 30 years later, cite ongoing cover-ups.

Singh follows the unpredictable trajectory, the non-linear "flow" of memory itself, spilling backwards and forward in time

But the author is in no hurry to reveal the wider details and implications of that horrific event, which haunts the novel as surely and powerfully as it haunts its protagonist. Instead, Singh follows the unpredictable trajectory, the non-linear "flow" of memory itself, spilling backwards and forward in time in the manner of human consciousness, tantalising us with historical arcana and titbits as he unfurls his leisurely but purposeful narrative.

Raj recalls how, within minutes of meeting him, Mohan Singh became his mentor and friend, introducing him to his much younger wife Nelly - with whom our narrator remains slightly infatuated 25 years later - and to many potent, philosophical, scientific and literary ideas outside the professor's area of specialisation, which was helium, "He", the so called noble gas.

It was from the professor too that Raj first learned of Primo Levi, whose famous autobiographical stories were about his experiences of the holocaust. The periodic table, his mentor once explained, "connects the world of molecules to the world of humans".

He invokes the nature of helium and the words of Levi to help fathom the 1984 massacre, to make sense of what he calls "our periodic table of hate". His own driving impulse - one which he tries, unsuccessfully, to resist - is to explain humans and human memory in terms of atoms, molecules and elementary particles, and it's this that imbues this unusual novel with an eerie, almost sinister beauty. Unable to shake the memories of 1984, to make the past stay in the past, Raj finally, 25 years after his professor's death, gets on a train to Shimla to search for his widow, Nelly. He has discovered from one of his former ITT colleagues that she is rumoured to work there as an archivist. He finds her, armed with a lame apology and a handful of questions. What happened to her two children during the massacre? Did his father, a senior police officer, offer to give her a lift that fateful day at the Delhi train station?

He finds Nelly, "with the aura and grandeur of an ageing beauty", just where he thought she'd be, in a Shimla library, "the coldest library in the world". In the ballroom of the old Viceregal Lodge, which now houses the Institute of Advanced Studies, is a library, he notes, housed in "the space where the British Empire had danced when nine million Indians died of famine". Locked deep in sadness, Nelly's avid interest in the avian world, he discovers, is the only salve for her deep wounds. He no longer feels the sexual attraction for Nelly he once did, but meeting her forces him to confront his unacknowledged memories about 1984. Memories that have menaced his equilibrium and driven the narrative all along.

But as the novel picks up in pace and moves towards its shocking revelations and ultimate denouement, Raj, or rather Singh himself, cannot help but meander through the idiosyncratic colonial history of Shimla, deliver us a treatise on ornithology in India and its British civil servant founder, Allan Octavian Hume - also a co-founder of India's Congress party - and point out that every slope, every tree in the area "carries traces of colonialism".

His rambling ruminations on history and his frequent ironic asides on everything from Dyer-Meakin beer to Buna rubber add up to what is effectively an alternate chronicle of India's recent history. It moves from the time of Lord Curzon, Rudyard Kipling, the British Raj and Amritsar to that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, then on to a different Gandhi, and Operation Blue Star, Trilokpuri, Hondh-Chillar, Bhopal and Delhi's enduring reputation as an unsafe place for women. There are cryptic historical clues to a different but parallel narrative to the one in plain sight - an inquiry into the 1984 Sikh massacre and the nature of memory and forgetting.

It's an oddly haunting, somewhat mysterious novel with something of the free-flowing consistency of "hyper-beautiful helium-4". A novel that doesn't shy away from delivering a savage indictment of the Congress party or the suggestion that Shining India, as one of its characters says, "works for a small minority".



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Memories of a massacre


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